Auction Could Dictate Future of Wireless Devices On Thursday, the FCC will begin auctioning off part of the wireless spectrum — space that will be vacated when TV broadcast moves to digital in 2009, and maybe the last parts of the spectrum that will be available for a long time. The buyers — and how much they buy — could dictate how mobile computing devices will work for years to come.
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Auction Could Dictate Future of Wireless Devices

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Auction Could Dictate Future of Wireless Devices

Auction Could Dictate Future of Wireless Devices

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Tomorrow night may be the beginning of your wireless future. The FCC is beginning to auction off a big chunk of the wireless spectrum. It's likely to be the last time that any significant piece of the airwaves will be available for cell phones and computers. And the FCC says a large portion of it must be open. That means for the first time, you could buy a phone from Verizon and keep it when you switch to, say, in AT&T plan.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: That cell phone may be just the beginning. Imagine this…

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: At the supermarket, you can't remember if you're out of milk.

(Soundbite of cell phone being dialed)

SYDELL: You, without your phone to call your fridge you are out of milk and eggs.

(Soundbite of alarm clock)

SYDELL: Your alarm clock goes off that connects to the Internet and gives you a personalized traffic report for your commute.

There are delays on your usual route down Highway 4. Better use I-126 for the next…

(Soundbite of TV distortion)

Professor TIM WU (Law, Columbia Law School): Ten years ago, you'd read these articles about refrigerators that called for milk and, you know, things like that and they haven't really materialized and I think one of the reasons is that there is excessive control of the airwaves.

SYDELL: Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu. The wireless airwaves have been controlled by large providers like AT&T and Sprint. Now, they have a say in everything that gets connected to their networks.

Jason Devitt is an entrepreneur who founded Vindigo, a company that develops applications for mobile phones. He says when you have to get your invention approved first by a big company, it dampens the entrepreneurial spirit.

Mr. JASON DEVITT (Founder, Vindigo): Frankly, I wouldn't try and launch a wireless refrigerator but if you are crazy enough to try that yourself, you can be certain that Verizon and AT&T and others would be extremely reluctant to spend the money required to test that equipment.

SYDELL: Devitt and Wu are hoping that tomorrow's auction is going to change the process. The FCC is requiring whoever wins some of the most coveted wireless spectrum to open it up to any device. That means you wouldn't have to get Verizon to approve your fridge before you sell it.

Despite the FCC's requirement, Tim Wu has concerns that if one of the big players, like Verizon or AT&T, wins the auction, they will find ways to keep that milk-scanning fridge off the market. Verizon recently announced it would open its networks but it still says independently-developed devices must go through a trial before it hooks them up.

Prof. WU: Trials can either be a routine inspection to make sure the product is safe or a trial can be something that last for five years and a product never gets out of.

SYDELL: None of the companies planning on participating in the auction would comment for this story because the FCC requires a quiet period before the bidding. But major wireless carriers have said they object to open networks because a badly-designed refrigerator could take down the cell phone network when you ask it if you're out of milk. But the bidding will be fierce because it is high-quality spectrum. It's a bit like Superman's X-ray vision it can go through walls and mountains.

Ms. GIGI SOHN (Director, Public Knowledge): It makes signals go further, go clearer, it's what people call a beachfront property.

SYDELL: Gigi Sohn, director of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. Google is expected to bid on the spectrum. Google is interested because it wants to, say, put its own ad for milk on your wireless refrigerator without having to go through Verizon. But Sohn says Verizon or AT&T will bid high because they can't afford to lose their market dominance.

Ms. SOHN: They will spend above market rate in order to keep desirable spectrum out of competitors' hands.

SYDELL: The auction itself could take weeks or even months and the spectrum won't be available for use until 2009. So it's likely to be awhile before you see that wireless alarm clock or refrigerator.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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